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Insights from "The Righteous Mind"

Moral Foundations Source: Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind

Maybe you know this feeling, there are rare moments in our lives where we really understand something deeply and the perspective on our life changes instantly. I did not expect this life-changing moment from a book about morale to be honest. The book covers so much more and goes to the heart of all of it, who we are, why we are as we are, what keeps us apart, and why it is so fucking hard to change someone's opinion or perspective. Although it is just a theory (Morale Foundation Theory) it all makes sense for me when it comes to my personal history. I'll try to cover the most crucial insights from the book in the following story. One hint in advance: There is no universal morale right or wrong.

Insight: The Elephant & the Rider

When you hear a specific "trigger" term as for example "abortion" the elephant is at work in our body. This is of course a metaphor, but it describes how we respond to influences that trigger our morale foundation. In this metaphor our emotions (intuitions) are the elephant that goes instantly in one direction. The rider of the elephant is our rationality which is only partly in control of the elephant, which means it takes a lot of time and effort to change the direction of the elephant.

In practice if you hear the term "abortion" you react on it instantly. The elphant is automatically leaning towards one direction. After this very first moment that happens unconsciously, in some cases, you reflect on your initial judgement about "abortion" and the rider comes into play. Good arguments or personal stories where such a thing happened with your best friend can change your initial judgement in a conscious way. Unfortunately, the rider is very often misleading, which means that if you lean in one direction the rider gives just arguments to justify the elephant's reaction.

Insight: The Morale Foundation and our Tongue

Why is your elephant leaning towards one direction? This is based on our Morale Foundation. It is similar to our tongue which has five receptors for bitter, sour, sweet and so on. Our Morale Foundation has six instead of five recptors according to author Jonathan Haidt. They are as follows: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation and Liberty/Oppression.

Of course it is possible that this list of receptors of our Morale Tongue can vary or is not sufficient at all, but the concept itself makes sense. The concept says that we are not blank sheets when we are born, but instead our morale book is already partly written by our genes (the chapters of the book). The details of the chapters are written throughout our lives. This means that our elephants are already fed with strong assumptions how the elephant will respond to morale issues.

Insight: The Liberals and the Conservatives

Studies with tens of thousands of people across race, gender, cultures, religion etc. showed that statistically there are in general two types of elephants. The elephants that lean towards liberal moral positions and the elephants that lean towards conservative moral positions. In the United States you see very clearly that people are divided in nearly equal groups (Democrats vs. Republicans). This percentage of course could vary in each country.

More interestingly, the conservatives are using and are attracted by all six recptors of the Morale Foundation whereas the liberals are only using and are attracted by three receptors (fairness, care, liberty). This explains why liberals that do not think about the moral receptors of conservatives as for example Hilary Clinton had a hard time to convince people to vote for her. As in this matter "smarter" liberals as Obama used also the other three (more conservative) receptors as Loyalty (as Obama did with: Family values), Authority (as Obama did with: Black people have to work harder) and Sanctity (as Obama did with: Go to church and praise the Holy God).

Insight: Are you more Liberal or Conservative?

There is an online questionnaire that you can fill out to find where your elephant is leaning, but there are also a (not very precise) quick test. Imagine you have to decide for a pet and you have to prioritize the characteristics on which you would choose the animal: (1) The pet is a very friendly being and always happy (2) The pet is loyal to you and your commands (3) The pet cleans itself (4) The pet is very distanced and cautious to people that the pet does not know.

Please note that there is no right or wrong just the perception if you are more liberal or conservative. If you had selected (1) before (2) and (4) then you are predominantly left, if (2) and (4) are higher than (1) than your are morally right. (3) is neutral and is both left and right in this context.

Insight: Morality binds and blinds

Maybe you know the situation: There is an election and there is a liberal and a conservative party in the race to win. From your point of view the other party is saying and doing all things wrong and you can not understand why some rational human being is voting for them. First of all, rationality has nothing to do with it, but with our morale matrix. This is a perfect example for morality binds and blinds. By birth we have already a predisposition in our brain that we get a special pleasure from novelty, variety and diversity while being less sensitive to signs of threat (more liberal) or the other way around (more conservative). So, people are not adopting their ideologies at random or by soaking up whatever ideas are around them, but we are predisposed. Throughout our life we are therefore more adaptive - unconsciously and intuitively - to the grand narratives of the political movements by the left and the right. Once people join one of these movements they get confirmation everywhere and it is difficult (or impossible) to convince that they are wrong if you are outside of their moral matrix.

Liberals and conservatives can absolutely benefit from each other, because they have both blind spots. For example liberals are optimized for progess, but they exaggerate, they do too much of it and too fast, regardless of other people, culture, institutions etc. One further example is that liberals have a lack of the three moral foundations authority, loyality and sanctity. This causes a lack of empathy when it comes to understand positions of the conservatives. On the other hand, conservatives have a blind spot when it comes to power abuse of people and institutions. One further example is that they cannot see or cannot help people that are victims of (power) abuse.

Insight: Humans are 90% Ape and 10% Bee

At some point of time in the evolution to homo sapiens something essential changed with our ancestors. Before that we were more or less apes. After this change we also became partly bee. Research says that at some point our ancestors developed a thing that is called "shared intentionality". This means that we can understand each other which goes beyond verbal communication. Imagine our ancestors were on a hunt and one hunter is observing a threatening saber-toothed tiger. Shared intentionality means that just with eye contact and subtle signs in the direction of the killer tiger other hunters know what is going on and can prepare.

Apes do not have this skillset. But with this skillset the game changed for our ancestors and so for us. Our ancestors worked together, built groups, developed tools for the common group etc. These type of working together is commonly known in a bee hive. But, humans are still predominantly ape (let's say 90%), because over hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors did not have a shared intentionality which means we are very selfish creatures. About 50.000 years ago our ancestors developed "shared intentionality" that makes us in certain moments very groupish.

Insight: The Hive Switch

Maybe you know the feeling: There is something missing in your life. The reason could be that you act mostly as the ape in you, which means very selfish. But because of a reason you have no connection to a higher purpose which means that the bee part is missing. The hive switch is the switch to come from the ape to the bee mode. There are some obvious ways to come into this mode: e.g. be part of a religious community, play in a sports team, join a choir, be part of a political or non-government organization etc. And there are some not so obvious ways: e.g. be in wildlife to connect with nature, be on a concert or club and dance with thousand others, work in the social or health sector where it is not only a job, but you work for a higher purpose etc.

Insight: Quo Vadis Religion

Groupish behaviour is crucial for the success of the group. Our ancestors gathered in groups to survive. But there are always people that act selfish and risk the group's survival. These people are called free rider, because they undermine the shared rules of the group. For that problem gods and religion come into play. Although gods were "invented" earlier (god of fire, god of thunder etc.) their function for groups established later. To control the behaviour of free riders the fury of god was used to let people behave for example in the way of: "Murder and theft is bad, otherwise one of the gods will punish you."

Until now, religious communities have very strong bonds between each other and act more selfless as non-religions communities (e.g. in terms of donations). More interestingly, this selfless behaviour is not based on some laws of god or the bible, but are based on the strong bonds within the group. Religion therefore, is a strong indicator for group survival and is an important function for a healthy society. From an evolutionary perspective the overall goal is to turn a minimum of resources into a maximum of offspring. European countries have for example a lot of resources but less and less offspring. Interestingly, these countries are becomming more and more atheist at the same time.

Interpretation related to Agile, New Work and Organizational Cultures

The differences between liberals and conservatives are so strongly defined by our genes and brains that the question arises if it makes sense to let people work together for a common goal when the morale matrix is so different. An organizational culture needs common values and rules. When we change organizations according to more agile and new work styles (which is clearly a more liberal form of thinking and doing) are we really aware that everyone (liberals plus conservatives) can be part of this journey? For specific ways of working (agile and self-organized vs. traditional and hierarchical), specific levels of organizational maturity (startups vs. big enterprises), specific types departments (innovation vs. accounting) the answer could be that we need people with a specific morale matrix that fits to the organizational challenge. But this is a personal interpretation and left for discussion.


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt


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